Parker poses next to a photograph at his Fess Parker Winery & Vineyards… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Fess Parker, whose star-making portrayal of frontiersman Davy Crockett on television in the mid-1950s made him a hero to millions of young baby boomers and spurred a nationwide run on coonskin caps, died Thursday. He was 85.
Parker, who played another pioneer American hero on television's "Daniel Boone" in the 1960s before becoming a successful Santa Barbara hotel developer and Santa Ynez Valley winery owner, died of complications from old age at his home near the winery, said family spokeswoman Sao Anash.
A longtime presence -- and sometimes controversial figure -- in Santa Barbara County, Parker had numerous real estate holdings in the area, including Fess Parker's Doubletree Resort in Santa Barbara and the Fess Parker Winery & Vineyards and Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa, both in Los Olivos.
Building of an as-yet-unnamed new beachfront hotel in Santa Barbara is also underway.
Parker was a struggling 29-year-old actor, with rugged, boyish good looks and a soft Texas drawl, when Walt Disney was looking for someone to play the lead in a three-part saga about Crockett in 1954. The three hourlong shows were scheduled to air during the premiere season of Disney's weekly "Disneyland" TV show, which began on ABC that fall.
James Arness was one of the many actors considered for the role. But although Disney watched Arness during a screening of the science-fiction thriller "Them!" another young actor in a small part caught his eye: the 6-foot-6 Parker.
"Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter," the first of the initial three Crockett adventures, aired on "Disneyland" on Dec. 15, 1954, and unexpectedly turned Parker into an overnight sensation.
TV's "King of the Wild Frontier" also touched off a merchandising frenzy: 10 million coonskin caps reportedly were sold, along with toy "Old Betsy" rifles, buckskin shirts, T-shirts, coloring books, guitars, bath towels, bedspreads, wallets -- anything with the Crockett name attached.
Viewers also fell in love with the show's catchy theme song. Bill Hayes' version of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" soared to No. 1 on the hit parade and remained there for 13 weeks. And there were a couple of dozen other recordings of the song, including one by Parker himself.
"It was an explosion beyond anyone's comprehension," Parker told a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1994. "The power of television, which was still new, was demonstrated for the first time."
Even Disney was taken by surprise.
"We had no idea what was going to happen to 'Crockett,' " he later said. "Why, by the time the first show finally got on the air, we were already shooting the third one and calmly killing Davy off at the Alamo. It became one of the biggest overnight hits in TV history, and there we were with just three films and a dead hero."
The studio quickly rebounded, rushing two Crockett "prequel" adventures into production for the second season of "Disneyland" and editing the first three episodes into a feature film, "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier," which was released in May 1955. The two later TV segments, again featuring Buddy Ebsen as Crockett's sidekick George Russel, were turned into a 1956 feature film, "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates."
During a cross-country personal appearance tour in the summer of 1955, as many as 20,000 fans reportedly showed up to greet the actor when he landed at each city's airport.
Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger already had captivated television's first generation of young viewers when the first Crockett adventure aired, but nothing before had equaled the effect of the buck-skinned hero.
"Those Davy Crockett episodes really brought American history -- indeed, a Disney version of American history -- to the playground as well as to the American living room," Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, told The Times some years ago.
"You not only could watch these programs, but you could play them, dress up like them, make the Davy Crockett aesthetic infiltrate every part of your life," he said. "And, of course, those coonskin caps: No self-respecting kid under the age of 12 could go through American life without one."
But although "you can merchandise and market and promo something like crazy," Thompson said, "I think, in the end, for something like this to succeed, you've got to have an actor who can pull it off, and Fess Parker made a great Davy Crockett."
Moves to Hollywood
Born in Fort Worth on Aug. 16, 1924, Parker served in the Navy during World War II. He graduated with a degree in history from the University of Texas on the GI Bill in 1950, but by then he had developed a new interest: acting.
Parker moved to Hollywood in the summer of 1950. With a year left on his GI Bill, he enrolled at USC with the goal of getting a master's degree in theater history. But small acting jobs soon got in the way of that goal.